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plurals | possessives | punctuation

PAC Acronym for political action committee. Acceptable on first reference but spell out early in the article or document. Lowercase the spelled out form unless its part of a complete name. Legal but not necessarily acceptable are super PACs, which can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money, supposedly because the corporations and unions that send them unlimited amounts of money are people with free-speech rights, belly-button lint and acid reflux (or something like that), says the U.S. Supreme Court.

Pacific Islander See Asian, Pacific Islander.

Pacific Northwest Capitalize. Also capitalize Northwest when referring to the Pacific Northwest region. See addresses.

page numbers Use numerals and capitalize page when used with a figure: Page 1. Spell out and capitalize the page number in business correspondence: Page Five.

pair A pair is a group of two or something with two similar parts. The singular noun takes a singular verb: The pair of scissors is in the drawer. His pair of black dress shoes is in the closet. The preferred plural is pairs: She took three pairs of pants on the trip. Also, using a pair of when writing about one set of twins, scissors, shoes and so on is often redundant. Simplify. Try dropping a pair of.

Palestine Palestine is both an ancient region in the Middle East and a current territory that the United Nations General Assembly recognized as a sovereign Palestinian state (officially, a non-member observer state) in 2012. The State of Palestine, represented by the Palestinian Authority, claims the West Bank and Gaza Strip with East Jerusalem as its designated capital, though Israel has occuped most of the Palestinian territories since 1967. Use Palestine and Palestinians in references to actions of the Palestinian Authority: the Palestinian flag, Palestinian prime minister.

palate, palette, pallet Sometimes confused or misspelled. A palate is "the roof of the mouth" and "a person’s sense of taste." A palette is "a board with a thumbhole that an artist uses to hold and mix paints." It’s also "the range of colors used on a particular painting." And a pallet is "a low portable platform that holds stacks of goods, often in a warehouse."

paradigm Obscure, pompous jargon. Unless you’re trying to impress and confuse readers simultaneously, use simpler pattern, model or example. Instead of a paradigm shift, try a new idea for doing something or a new way of viewing something.

paragraph Long paragraphs--like long sentences--can intimidate readers. To improve readability and appearance (which affects readability), try to limit most paragraphs to seven lines containing no more than four or five sentences. And think about turning some paragraphs into bulleted lists of parallel points. See lists.

One-sentence paragraphs aren’t used often in formal, academic and business writing. But they can be effective to stress a single point, to mark a major transition between other paragraphs, to summarize what’s already been expressed in a single strong statement or to introduce a new topic with a single strong statement. Journalists often use them; the narrow newspaper columns make long paragraphs look uninviting to readers. One-sentence paragraphs also can be useful in technical writing. See inverted pyramid; Myths and Superstitions of Writing.

parallel Commonly misspelled. Double the l in the middle, not the r.

parameter(s) Jargon. If you’re not using this term to mention the variable(s) in a mathematical equation, don’t use it. Instead, try perimeter or boundary if you’re writing about the border around an area of land or outer boundary of a geometric figure. Usually better in business writing are limits, feature, dimensions, extent or scope. Other useful choices are properties, rules, conditions, barriers, guidelines or characteristics.

paraphrasing See attribution, quotations.

parentheses ( ) Parentheses may be used to surround words, phrases or even whole sentences that are relatively unimportant to the main text. But they can distract the reader from your main point. Think about deleting the unimportant text. If a sentence must contain incidental information, setting off the information with a pair of commas or a pair of dashes may be more effective. Also try placing the extra information in a separate sentence--with no parentheses. See abbreviations and acronyms, comma, dash.

Parenthesis marks always come in twos, one opening and one closing ( ). Don’t use one without the other, including if they’re used in numbered or alphabetized lists. See lists.

Place a period outside a closing parenthesis if the material inside is not a sentence (such as this fragment). If a parenthetical sentence (here is one example) is part of a sentence, don’t capitalize the first word or end the parenthetical sentence with a period. But if the parenthetical sentence ends with a question mark or exclamation point, put a period after the closing parenthesis (here’s another example!). If the material in the parentheses is an independent sentence, capitalize the first word and place the period before the closing parenthesis. (Here is an example.)

partially, partly These adverbs have subtle but useful differences in meaning. Use partly to mean "in part," when a whole can have distinct parts--usually of a physical object: They built the shelter partly of wood and partly of aluminum. Use partially to describe the whole but only "to some extent or some degree"--especially when writing about a condition or preference: I’m partially resigned to it. If the difference isn’t clear, use simpler partly.

participate, participation Formal. Simplify. Try using take part or taking part instead.

particular Often redundant and wordy when used with this or that: He praised this particular book. Simplify. Drop particular.

part time, part-time Two words when used as a noun. Do not hyphenate. Hyphenate when used as a compound modifier: He worked part time. She has a part-time job.

party Silly legal jargon for "person." A person may go to a party, belong to a party or be part of a party--and be involved in a lawsuit. See people, persons.

party affiliation If mention of political party affiliation is necessary, follow these examples:

  • Republican Sen. Jerry DeSoto of Oregon said ...,
  • Rep. Edmund Ballinger, D-Auburn, said ... (for Washington state representatives)
  • Rep. Virginia Westerland, R-Idaho, said ...
  • Clark County Councilmember Shirley Cannon, D-District 3, said. ...

See districts, legislative titles.

pass See adopt, approve, enact, pass.

passable, passible Sometimes confused or misspelled. Use the adjective passable to describe something that’s barely good enough to be acceptable or something that’s clear of barriers. An adjective used in theology or religious study, passible describes someone who’s capable of feeling or suffering.

passed, past Sometimes misused or confused. Passed is the past tense of the verb pass, which has multiple meanings including "to move forward, hand to others, go beyond, elapse, complete successfully, pronounce formally, enact, emit, refuse to act, exceed, or spend time." Past refers to time or distance as an adjective, adverb, noun, preposition and adverb. It’s never a verb.

passerby, passersby

passive verbs See active vs. passive verbs.

past See passed, past above; past, previous, prior below; and last, latest, past.

past due No hyphen after the noun it modifies; hyphenate before the noun: a past-due bill. The payment was past due.

pastime Commonly misspelled. Not pasttime.

past, previous, prior Redundant and wordy when used with words like achievement, experience, history, performance and record: After the merger, they often talked about their prior experience with the agency. Drop prior. Also, in other uses, before, earlier or last are simpler alternatives to previous.

pat-down (n. and adj.), pat down (v.)

patrol, patrolled, patrolling

pavilion Commonly misspelled.

PCBs Spell out on first reference--polychlorinated biphenyls. The abbreviation PCBs (all uppercase, no apostrophe) may be used on second reference.

PC, P.C. Use PC as abbreviation for personal computer. Use P.C. as abbreviation for politically correct. See politically correct.

PDF Abbreviation for portable document format. The abbreviation is acceptable on first use when noting the format of a file on a website: (PDF file, 1.2MB). Lowercase when giving a document name: brochure.pdf. To aid readers on the Web, consider linking to free downloadable PDF reader software or PDF reader, such as Adobe Reader.

peaceable, peaceful Sometimes confused and often ignored, unfortunately. Use peaceable to describe a person or nation that doesn’t like to argue or cause fights. Use peaceful to describe a person, place, relationship or situation that is calm, tranquil, quiet, or not at war or in violent conflict.

peak hour (n), peak-hour (adj.) Also known as peak period. Use rush hour if possible.

peninsula Capitalize when part of a proper name: the Olympic Peninsula in Washington, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico; but the Coney Island peninsula in New York, the Baja California peninsula in Mexico. Also, lowercase the peninsula when used without the identifying proper name.

penultimate A useful word for confusing your readers, if not yourself. It means "next to last," but if you mean "next to last," simplify and use next to last. It does not mean "the best, the last, the ultimate," or "the quintessential." If you mean one of those words, use one of those words or a simple phrase like the very last or the perfect example.

people, persons Use person when speaking of an individual: One person waited for the bus. Use people instead of persons in plural uses: Hundreds of people attended the open house. Five people were hurt in the accident. People takes a plural verb when used to refer to a single race or nation: The American people are united. Also, when forming the possessive of people, people’s is almost always correct. See individual, individuals; party.

Avoid lumping together groups of people with general, dehumanizing "the" labels that imply they’re all the same: the college-educated, the disabled, the homeless, the Japanese, the poor. Also: "Participants who need participants are the most wonderful participants in the world." "Members of the community who need members of the community are the most wonderful members of the community in the world." "Those who need those are the most wonderful those in the world." "Others who need others are the most wonderful others in the world." Try people instead!

per Avoid using Latin words when English phrases are available: 10 tons a year or 10 tons yearly instead of 10 tons per annum; $4 rate an hour instead of $4 rate per hour. Also, avoid mixing Latin and English: 10 tons per year. Use of per may be acceptable to avoid awkward phrases: They produced 10 tons a year per worker. See as per, per diem below.

percent Use the symbol for percent when paired with a number; no space between them: 80%, 9.4%, 0.3%. It takes a singular verb when standing alone or when a singular word follows an of construction: About 25% of the department was absent. It takes a plural verb when a plural word follows an of construction: She reported that 60% of the councilmembers were present.

percentages Use numerals with decimals--not fractions: 3%, 6.7%, 33%. For amounts less than 1%, precede the decimal with a zero--0.3%. Round off percentages to the tenths point: 45.8%, not 45.87%. For a range of percentages, each of these is acceptable: 9% to 12%, 9%-12%, and between 9% and 12%. Try using half instead of 50% if you’re not using the figure alongside other percentage statistics.

per diem Avoid using this Latin phrase. Instead, use a day, daily and daily allowance: She will be paid the daily rate. Participants will get a daily allowance and salary.

perform Unless you’re writing about entertainers, athletes or, perhaps, politicians, think about deleting or using a form of do or a more accurate word.

perimeter See parameter.

period (.) This punctuation mark has two main purposes. It ends all sentences that are not questions or exclamations, and it’s used in some abbreviations.

Use periods to break up complicated sentences into two or more readable sentences. "There’s not much to be said about the period except that most writers don’t reach it soon enough." William Zinsser, On Writing Well: An Informal Guide to Writing Nonfiction, 1980. See sentence length.

Use a period, not a question mark, after an indirect question: He asked what the score was.

Don’t put a space between two initials: T.S. Eliot.

Use periods after numbers or letters in listing elements of a summary: 1. Wash the car. 2. Clean the basement. Or: A. Punctuate properly. B. Write simply.

Periods always go inside quotation marks.

Put only one space after a period (and other sentence-ending punctuation, including colons).

See abbreviations and acronyms, ellipsis, lists, punctuation, quotation marks.

period of time Wordy and overstated. Simplify. Use either period or time. See time frame.

permissible Commonly misspelled.

permit See allow, enable, permit.

per se Latin for "I’m trying to sound superior to you by using this vague legal jargon." Instead, use clearer, less pretentious, less formal in itself, by itself or of itself. Commas usually go at both ends of those terms: Higher pay, by itself, is not usually the reason people form unions.

persecute, prosecute Occasionally confused, misused or abused. To persecute is "to oppress or coerce someone, often for political or religious beliefs" or "to harass or annoy someone." To prosecute is "to conduct criminal or legal proceedings against someone in courts."

persevere, perseverance Commonly misspelled. Not perservere and perserverance.

persistent Commonly misspelled.

personally Usually redundant and unnecessary when used by the person speaking or writing: Personally, I like Pearl Jam. Using personally may be appropriate for emphasis when other people are involved: Instead of waiting for her boss to do it, she personally signed the form. The representative voted against the resolution, though he personally favors it. See I.

personnel Commonly misspelled. Also think about using simpler people, staff or workers.

person, persons See individual, individuals; people, persons.

perspective, prospective Sometimes confused. A noun, perspective is "a person’s way of thinking about things," "a person’s point of view," and "a method of drawing that shows distance and depth." An adjective, prospective describes someone who’s likely to do a particular thing or something that’s expected or likely to happen.

persuade See convince, persuade.

pertain to, pertaining to Wordy and formal. Simplify. Change to is about, about, for, of or on.

peruse Pompous, formal and often misused. It means "to read carefully." Use read carefully, read thoroughly or study, if that’s what you mean. Use skim, scan or simply read, if that’s what you mean.

phase See faze, phase.

phenomena, phenomenon You might notice a single phenomenon while waiting at a bus stop, but if you use that stop often enough, you could see two or more or many phenomena. Correct usage: this phenomenon (singular form), these phenomena (plural form). Phenomenons (plural) is used informally when describing two or more people with extraordinary talents and qualities, each a phenomenon.

phone numbers See telephone numbers.

pickup (n., adj.), pick up (v.)

pile, piling Sometimes confused. A pile is a long, slender column of timber, steel or reinforced concrete driven into the ground to support a bridge, dock or other load. A piling is a structure of piles.

pileup (n., adj.), pile up (v.)

PIN Abbreviation for personal information number. Acceptable in all references, including first. But spell out term near beginning of article. PIN number is redundant.

pipeline One word.

pithy See concise.

place (v.) Overstated and formal. Simplify. Try put.

Learn more about StyleWriter plain English, plain language A method of writing that matches the needs of the reader with your needs as a writer, leading to effective and efficient communication. It stresses using familiar words; cutting useless words; avoiding or explaining jargon and technical words; using abbreviations carefully; using inclusive language; writing in active voice; keeping sentences short; avoiding double negatives; using punctuation correctly; using lists; and using headings consistently. Also see concise, concisely, conciseness; simple, simplistic; Garbl’s Plain English Writing Guide.

planner Capitalize this job title before a name: Environmental Planner Hillary Roosevelt. Lowercase it when standing alone or after a name between commas: Hillary Roosevelt, environmental planner, explained the change.

planning Avoid the redundant future planning.

plans, projects, programs Capitalize the full name of programs, projects or plans adopted formally by an organization. Otherwise, avoid capitalizing them. Always lowercase program, project or plan when the word stands alone or when using only part of the formal name: The project is under way. Avoid interchanging the words program, project or plan within a text.

plants Usually, lowercase common nouns in the names of plants, capitalizing only proper nouns and adjectives--or check a dictionary or specialized reference for specific plants: salal, Oregon grape. For scientific (Latin) names of plants, see taxonomy.

playwright Commonly misspelled. Not playwrite.

Plexiglas Note the capital P and single s. A trademark for plastic glass.

plurality A plurality is the largest number of votes cast. It’s less than a majority. See majority, most.

plurals Follow the rules below for forming words to show more than one of the things named:

  • For most words, add s: books, guitars. Except when making a plural of single letter, do not add an apostrophe to words or numbers to make them plural.
  • Add s to compound words written as single words: cupfuls, handfuls. For compound words that use separate words or link the words with a hyphen, make the most significant word plural: assistant attorneys, attorneys general, daughters-in-law, deputy chiefs of staff.
  • Add s to figures: General Motors built the car in the 1940s. The Boeing Co. sold 12 more 767s.
  • Don’t change the spelling of proper nouns when making them plural. Add es to most proper names ending in es or z: Gonzalezes, Jameses, Joneses, Parkses. Add s to other proper names, including most proper names ending in y even if preceded by a consonant: the Clintons, the Abernathys, not the Abernathies.
  • Add es to most words ending in ch, s, sh, ss, x and z: churches, buses, foxes, fuzzes, glasses.
  • Change is to es in words ending in is: parentheses, theses.
  • Add es to most words ending in o if a consonant comes before o: echoes, heroes. There are exceptions: pianos.
  • Words with Latin roots: Change us to i in words ending in us: alumnus, alumni. Change words ending in on to a: phenomenon, phenomena. Add s in most words ending in um: memorandums, referendums but not addenda, curricula, media.
  • Avoid using a possessive name as a plural: The free passes are available at four McDonald’s restaurants. Not: The free passes are available at four McDonald’s.
  • Do not use ’s when writing about words as words: His speech had too many ifs, ands and buts.
  • To avoid confusion, add ’s to single letters: Dot your i’s. She earned two A’s and three B’s on her report card. Add s to multiple letters: He knows his ABCs. They have three color TVs.

When providing both the singular and plural forms of a noun, a common style is to put the plural ending in parentheses: truck(s), glass(es). An alternative style is to separate both forms with a slash: truck/trucks, glass/glasses. That style works well if a word must be spelled differently when it becomes a plural, like singular words ending in y (city/cities), singular words ending in f or fe (wife/wives, calf/calves) and odd words like mouse/mice, woman/women. Both styles can produce awkward, confusing sentences, however, and should be avoided unless necessary. Less confusing could be using only the singular form and letting the context show that your statement can apply to more than one thing.

When a number and a noun form a compound modifier (or compound adjective) before a noun, use a singular noun in the phrase and hyphenate the phrase. Drop the hyphens and use plural nouns in other uses: The room measured 6 by 9 feet, but a 6-by-9-foot room. The building has 3,300 square feet of usable space, but a 3,300-square-foot building. The container held 10 gallons, but a 10-gallon container. The type size is 18 points, but 18-point type. Her shift lasted 10 hours, but a 10-hour shift. She was on vacation for three weeks, but a three-week vacation. See dimensions, distances, hyphen. See dimensions, distances, hyphen

For plurals not covered here, check your preferred dictionary. Also see abbreviations and acronyms, capitalization, collective nouns, possessives below.

plus Plus is a preposition, not a conjunction, meaning with the addition of. It does not influence the number of the verb: Two and two are four, but two plus two is [or equals] four. The plural is pluses, not plusses. See and (conjunction).

p.m. See time.

PMSA See Primary Metropolitan Statistical Area.

P.O. Box See addresses.

podium See lectern, podium.

point Do not abbreviate. Capitalize as part of a proper name: Alki Point, Point Roberts.

pointed out See attribution.

point of view Wordy. Simplify. Try attitude, opinion, belief, standpoint, view or viewpoint.

police, police department When writing about a group of police officers, treat police as a plural noun with a plural verb: Denver police are investigating. The police should adhere to tough ethical standards. Refer to individuals as police officers: Six police officers were near the accident. Not: Six police were near the accident. When writing about a police organization, use a singular verb: The Police Department is reviewing its standards. Capitalize Police Department with or without the name of the community when writing about a particular police department. Use a singular verb with Police Department: The Bellingham Police Department is working with the Sheriff’s Office. Lowercase in plural use, and lowercase department when standing alone. See capitalization; sheriff; titles.

policymaker (n.), policymaking (n., adj.) One word each.

political action committee See PAC.

political divisions Use figures and capitalize the accompanying words when used with figures: 3rd Precinct, 22nd Precinct, but the Burton precinct, the precinct.

politically correct Abbreviate as P.C. It means agreeing with or adhering to the idea that people should avoid using language or acting in a way that could be offensive, discriminatory or judgmental to a particular group of people, such as in matters of race, class, gender, or sexual orientation. That sensitivity is reasonable and admirable, but critics often use the term in derogatory or disparaging ways. Alternatives include tolerance, diplomatic, inclusive, polite and bias-free.

political parties and philosophies Capitalize the name of the party and the word party when used as part of an organization’s proper name: Democratic Party, Republican Party. Capitalize Democrat, Republican, Socialist and so on, when they refer to members of a specific party: The committee contains Democrats and Republicans. Lowercase those words when they refer to a political philosophy: The rebels are fighting for a democratic government. See party affiliation.

politics Usually it takes a plural verb: Your politics are your business. As a study or science, it takes a singular verb: Politics is an uncertain profession.

pop See soda, soft drink.

populace, populous Often confused. Populace is a condescending noun for the "common people" who live in a country, its population. Use the public, people or population instead. Populous is a formal adjective for describing a heavily populated, or crowded, area.

pore, pour The verbs are sometimes confused. You pour delicious maple syrup over your buttermilk pancakes. But you pore over your physics textbook (or "study or read it intently") so you won’t flunk the difficult class. As a noun, a pore is a tiny hole in skin or a leaf that liquid can pass through.

portable document format See PDF.

portion Overstated to mean "part of a whole." Simplify. Use part instead: part of an interview, part of a city. Use portion when writing about a share or something cut from the whole: a portion of the estate, a portion of food.

positive benefits Redundant and wordy. Simplify. Drop positive.

possess Pretentious. Use simpler have or own instead.

possessives Follow these rules for forming nouns and pronouns to show possession:

  • Add ’s to singular nouns not ending in s, including words ending in s sounds, such as ce, x, and z: the church’s members, the girl’s parents, Xerox’s profits.
  • Add ’s to singular common nouns ending in s even when the next word begins with an s: the bus’s engine, the bus’s seats, witness’s answer, the witness’s story.
  • Use only an apostrophe for singular proper names ending in s: Drakes’ decision. And add only an apostrophe to plural proper names ending in s: the Parkses’ home.
  • Add ’s to plural nouns not ending is s: children’s passes, men’s bike, women’s rights, women’s room.
  • Add only an apostrophe to plural nouns ending in s: the girls’ books, boys’ bike, plants’ supervisors, families’ cars.
  • When a plural noun is possessive but each person "owns" only one item, the item should also be listed in plural form. To confirm correctness, rephrase the possessive relationship as an of phrase: the children’s brains or the brains of the children; the teachers’ hands or the hands of the teachers.
  • Follow the rule above (and its test for correctness) when using plural nouns and possessive pronouns: The children became upset when their mothers left the room or the mothers of the children. Gerry and Lena took their dogs for a walk or the dogs of Gerry and Lena.
  • When two or more people jointly own an item, put the apostrophe after the noun closest to the item: Gary and Gina’s car (they jointly own car), Gary and Gina’s cars (they jointly own more than one car). But when two or more people separately own items, put an apostrophe or an ’s after each noun: Gary’s and Gina’s cars.
  • When writing about a family in the plural, add s and then an apostrophe: the Abernathys’ Christmas greeting (but Bob Abernathy’s Christmas greeting). See plurals above.
  • Add only an apostrophe to nouns plural in form, singular in meaning--for both common and proper nouns: United States’ wealth, mathematics’ rules, though the wealth of the United States and the rules of mathematics would be less awkward. See inanimate objects below.
  • Treat nouns that are the same in singular and plural as plurals, even if the meaning is singular: the two deer’s tracks. See collective nouns.

Many pronouns have separate forms for the possessive that don’t use an apostrophe: yours, ours, his, hers, its, theirs, whose. Use an apostrophe with a pronoun only when the meaning calls for a contraction: you’re (you are), it’s (it is). Follow the rules listed above in forming the possessives of other pronouns: another’s plan, others’ plans, one’s rights, someone else’s umbrella. See contractions.

Descriptive phrases: Do not add an apostrophe to a word ending in s when using the word as an adjective--describing the following noun. If the prepositions for or by would be more appropriate than the possessive of, do not use an apostrophe: a radio band for citizens, citizens band radio; a guide for writers, a writers guide; a day for veterans, Veterans Day; a union for carpenters, a carpenters union. Add ’s, however, when a term involves a plural word that does not end in s: a children’s hospital. If you’re giving the proper name of an organization or other item, try to respect the style it uses--even if that style differs from these guidelines: the Metropolitan Teacher’s Association, The World-Class Speller’s Guide.

Follow the rules above for quasi-possessive words that occur in such phrases as a day’s pay, two weeks’ vacation, four years’ experience, your money’s worth. But don’t use an apostrophe when the quantity precedes an adjective: three months pregnant, two weeks overdue, 8 years old.

To form a double possessive -- such as a friend of Donna’s -- the word after of must be an animate object (like a person), and the word before of must involve only some of the animate object’s "possessions." So, the friends of Donna Nelson and a friend of the theater don’t meet those two conditions. She is a friend of mine -- using personal pronouns -- is a common double possessive.

Avoid excessive personalization of inanimate objects. Use an of construction instead when appropriate. For example, the rules of mathematics is preferred to mathematics’ rules.

possibility Try replacing with simpler chance.

postgame One word, no hyphen. Same with pregame.

post office boxes See addresses.

potentially dangerous, potentially hazardous Redundant. By definition, dangerous and hazardous imply potential harm, injury or loss. Drop potentially.

pound sign (#) Avoid using as the symbol for a pound as a unit of weight. It’s also the symbol on the pushbutton in the lower right corner of the dialing pad on a standard pushbutton telephone--the pound key. Also called the number sign, don’t use to stand for number or No. It’s also called hash mark and, rarely, octothorp or octothorpe. See No.

pour See pore, pour.

PP&J Abbreviation (capitalized, no periods) for peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Acceptable on first reference, but you probably should spell it out at some point to help readers get a taste of the unique ingredients.

ppm Abbreviation for parts per million. Spell out on first reference unless in charts and tables. The abbreviation ppm (lowercase, no periods) may be used on second reference.

practically Overused. Simplify. Think about using almost or nearly instead.

pre- See prefixes.

precedence, precedent(s) Sometimes misspelled or confused. Something (or someone) has precedence if it’s more important or more urgent than something (or someone) else; it takes priority. A precedent is "an event, action or decision that’s used as a standard, example or justification for similar events, actions or decisions in the future." Precedents is the plural of precedent. Typical, correct terms: take precedence, have precedence, set a precedent, precedent-setting.

precede, preceding Often misspelled as preceed or confused with proceed. Precede means "to be, come or go before; to happen or exist before something else": She preceded him as division manager. Try using simpler come before or go before instead. See proceed.

precipitate, precipitous Often confused. As both a verb and adjective, precipitate is about sudden and swift actions or movements. Use the adjective to describe an action that’s done hastily or abruptly without careful thought. Use the adjective precipitous to describe a sudden and headlong drop of something, like off a steep, sheer cliff or precipice.

predecessor Commonly misspelled.

predesign No hyphen.

predominant, predominate Often confused or misused. Predominant is an adjective that means "more power, more frequent or more noticeable than others": He had the predominant role in organizing the group. But simplify. Try using main, chief, almost all, nearly all or most instead of predominant and mostly, mainly, chiefly or largely instead of the adverb form, predominantly.

Don’t use predominate and predominately as adjective and adverb. Predominate is a verb meaning "to have authority or influence over others or to be the most in number or amount." Follow predominate with a preposition like in, on and over: She predominated in the discussion.

preface See foreword, forward, preface.

prefixes Usually, follow these rules for adding a prefix: Do not hyphenate when using a prefix with a root word that begins with a consonant. Use a hyphen if the prefix ends in a vowel and the root word that follows begins with the same vowel. BUT don’t hyphenate double-e combinations that begin with re- and pre-: preempt, preexisting, reelect, reexamine.

When in doubt, check for specific prefixes and words in this style manual. If not listed here, check your preferred dictionary for specific words, and follow its advice for the first listing of the word. If not listed there, don’t hyphenate.

Also, use a hyphen when capitalizing the root word. And use a hyphen to join doubled prefixes: sub-subcommittee. At times, a hyphen is necessary for clarity of meaning: He will reform (correct or improve) the congregation. She will re-form (change the shape of) the clay figure. Usually, include the hyphen with the prefixes self-, all-, ex-, half-.

preliminary to, preparatory to Each has two words, six syllables and 13 letters. Wordy and pretentious jargon. Simplify. Change to before. See prior to.

pregame One word, no hyphen. Same with postgame.

preheat One word.

preload One word.

premier, premiere Sometimes confused and misused. As a noun, a premier is a prime minister or leader of a country. As an adjective, premier means "first in importance or rank, or earliest." (Or use either first, chief or leading as a less pretentious synonym.) Premiere is a noun meaning "first public performance of something, such as a movie or play." Premiere is occasionally used as a verb in referring to making a first public appearance or performance, especially in entertainment advertising and other promotional material. But its use as a verb is rejected as jargon by various style guides.

preparatory (to) Pompous jargon. Simplify. Replace with prepare, prepare for or plan, and use before instead of preparatory to.

preplanning Planning means laying a course. Preplanning is redundant. Replace preplanning with planning. See advance planning.

prerogative Commonly misspelled.

prepositions A preposition is a word or group of words that links a noun or pronoun to a verb, adjective, or another noun or pronoun. The most often used prepositions are at, by, for, from, in, of, on, to and with. Others include according to, ahead of, because of, in spite of, next to and out of. A prepositional phrase (a preposition followed by a noun or pronoun) modifies verbs, nouns and adjectives. See pronouns below.

Don’t overuse prepositions in a single sentence. To provide clarity, rewrite and shorten long sentences containing many prepositions. It’s correct to end a sentence with a preposition, but doing so could weaken the point of the sentence. Consider alternatives. See Myths and Superstitions of Writing. Also see Wordy Phrase Replacements for alternatives to many overused prepositional phrases.

Rudolf Flesch, Say What You Mean, 1972: "Avoid all prepositions and conjunctions that consist of more than one word. Aside from inasmuch as, this includes with regard to, in association with, in connection with, with respect to, in the absence of, with a view to, in an effort to, in terms of, in order to, for the purpose of, for the reason that, in accordance with, in the neighborhood of, on the basis of, and so on. There’s not a single one of these word combinations that can’t be replaced by a simple word like if, for, to, by, about or since."

prescribe, proscribe Sometimes confused. To prescribe means "to order or recommend a medicine or medical treatment for a patient" and "to impose rules or give directions." To proscribe means "to prohibit or forbid the existence or use of something."

present (v.) Overstated and formal. Simplify. Try give.

presently Ambiguous, overstated and misused. Simplify. Use soon, in a little while, in a short time or shortly instead, or be precise about the time element. It does not mean now, at present or currently. See present time below and currently.

present time Try replacing with simpler present or now.

preserve Overstated and formal. Simplify. Try keep or protect.

president Capitalize as a formal title before a name. Lowercase in all other uses, including the president of the United States and the president of your company.

Presidents Day Not President’s Day or Presidents’ Day. See Washington’s Birthday.

press Don’t refer to the print and broadcast news media as the press. Use news media instead: The news media are invited. Organizations produce news releases, not press releases, and hold news conferences, not press conferences. See media.

presumptive, presumptuous Often confused or misspelled adjectives. Use presumptive to describe something that’s probable or reasonable to believe: the presumptive nominee. Use presumptuous to describe someone who’s too bold, too confident or arrogant. Don’t spell as presumptious.

pressurized Gases, liquids and foods can be pressurized or compacted into containers under pressure. People are pressed or pressured.

pretty Vague and overused. Use it to describe women, girls, sights and sounds. But delete it, be more specific, or try words like almost, fairly or very in other uses. See fairly, very.

preventative Not a word. Replace with preventive.

previous See past, previous, prior.

primary (adj.), primarily (adv.) Overstated. Simplify. Try main, mainly, most or mostly.

Primary Metropolitan Statistical Area Spell out on first reference. Abbreviate in later references as PMSA: the Boston PMSA.

prime time (n.), prime-time (adj.)

principle, principal Commonly confused. Principal is a noun and adjective meaning someone or something first in rank, authority, importance or degree: She was the principal player on the team. Money is the principal problem. Think about using simpler adjectives main or chief. Principal is also the amount of debt, investment, stock or bond.

Principle is a noun that means a basic truth, belief, understanding, law, doctrine or motivating force: They fought for the principle of free speech.

prior Overstated and formal. Simplify. Try replacing with before. See past, previous, prior.

priorities Priorities can be high or low, and we can have many of them. If you’re going to make something a high priority, call it a high priority, not just a priority.

prioritize Pompous. Avoid this term. Instead say order, set priorities or rank.

prior to Pretentious, clumsy and wordy. Simplify. Use ahead of or before instead.

privatize, privatization Sometimes misused. To privatize is "to make something private, especially when transferring a government service operated for the benefit of the public to private control, private ownership or private interests": The administration proposes to partially privatize the Social Security system by allowing some workers to divert some funds to private accounts.

privilege Commonly misspelled. Its two i’s come first, then its two e’s.

proactive An adjective meaning "in anticipation of future problems, needs or changes." Though considered jargon by some, it’s a useful antonym to reactive. Use sparingly, delete or try replacing with active, assertive or aggressive.

problem-solving Two words, hyphenated.

procedure Commonly misspelled.

proceed Often misspelled or confused with precede. Means "to go ahead, to continue": They proceeded into the hall. But overstated and formal. Try rephrasing with a form of simpler continue, do, go ahead, go on, move, run, try or walk. Proceed is one of only three English words that end in -ceed. (The others are exceed and succeed). See precede.

pro-choice See abortion.

procure See get.

profanities See obscenities, profanities, racial or ethnic slurs.

professor Never abbreviate. Capitalize when used as a formal title before a full name. See academic degrees, titles.

profit sharing (n.), profit-sharing (adj.)

progressive Sometimes misused as a negative reference to a person, idea, program or action. Used accurately, progressive applies to people who favor progress and reform in politics, education and other fields. It means supporting or openness to new or modern ideas, methods and programs. A progressive person is more inclined to direct action than a liberal person. See conservation, conservative; liberal.

pro-life See abortion.

prolix See concise.

prone, supine Sometimes confused. Prone means "lying face down." Supine means "lying face up." If clarity is essential, substitute the pertinent definition for prone or supine. See prostate, prostrate.

pronouns Often confused and misused. The "nominative" pronouns I, he, she, we and they are always the subject of sentences and clauses (groups of words with a subject and a verb). In other words, I and the other nominative pronouns are more likely to be at the front of a sentence or clause (typically before the verb). And the "objective" pronouns me, him, her, us and them are always the object of verbs and prepositions. In other words, me and the other objective pronouns are more likely to be at the back of a sentence or clause (typically after the verb). Also follow those rules when joining pronouns (and other nouns) with conjunctions like and and or.

Examples: I hugged her. He talked to me. She hugged him. We talked to them. They talked to us. We and Alex debated him and her. He and I considered them and Amanda. She or they would attend with me or us. See between you and I, between you and me; I, me; It’s I, It’s me, It is I, It is me; us, we.

Also, reword sentences to drop unnecessary gender pronouns or avoid incorrect use, especially the outdated generic he and his but also she and her. Here are some alternatives:

  • Try dropping use of any pronoun.
  • Substitute the articles a or the for the pronoun where suitable.
  • Use the plural pronouns they and their with plural nouns: Workers ... they. Not The worker ... he. See their, them, their.
  • Use he or she and his or hers--but don’t overdo it. Alternate between using those phrases and other alternatives. See he or she, he/she; his, his/her.
  • See transgender for other uses of they/them/they.
  • Also see the sex, sexism entry for other suggestions.

pronunciation Sometimes misspelled. Not pronounciation.

prophecy, prophesy Sometimes confused. Prophecy is a noun for "a statement that predicts something, supposedly with religious or magical power; a prediction." Prophesy is a verb meaning "to use religious or magical knowledge to predict something."

proportions Always use numbers: 3 parts powder to 7 parts water.

proscribe See prescribe, proscribe.

prosecute See persecute, prosecute.

prospective See perspective, prospective.

prostate, prostrate Sometimes confused. The prostate is a male gland. Prostrate means "lying flat" and "overcome or weak": The body was prostrate on the ground. She was prostrate with grief. See prone, supine.

prostitute Do not use child prostitute, underage prostitute, teenage prostitute or other similar terms that imply a child is voluntarily trading sex for money. Even if those terms are used in quotations or in referring to criminal charges, the child is a victim of rape or sex trafficking. See rape.

protester Preferred spelling. Not protestor. However you spell it, you have a constitutional right to do it in the United States--to march, to picket, to petition!

proved, proven Proved is preferred as a verb: The prosecutor has proved the defendant’s guilt. So far, both teams have proved unbeatable. Proven is best used as an adjective (to modify a noun): a proven remedy, a proven failure, proven oil reserves.

provide(d) that Wordy and formal. Simplify. Try if.

provide with Wordy and overstated. Simplify. Try give.

provinces Use commas to set off names of provinces from community names: They went to Halifax, Nova Scotia, on their vacation. Do not capitalize province. See British Columbia.

provisions Formal. Simplify. Use rules or terms if that’s what you mean.

proviso, provisos

proximity See close proximity.

pseudonym Commonly misspelled. See nickname, pseudonym.

public General public is redundant. Simplify. Replace with public or more personal citizens, if appropriate. See citizen, collective nouns.

publication titles See composition titles, magazine names, newspapers.

publicly Sometimes misspelled. Not publically.

public information document Avoid using the abbreviation PID.

Puget Sound Use Puget Sound on first reference. Lowercase sound on future references when the word stands alone: The study focused on Puget Sound. Scientists sampled the sound during November.

pull up (v.), pullup (n.)

punctuation Use common sense. Punctuation should help reading--to make clear the thought being expressed. If punctuation does not help clarify the message, it should not be there.

Think of punctuation marks as street signs. When writers use them correctly, they help readers know when to pay attention, yield, slow down and stop. When used consistently, punctuation marks help both writers and readers act predictably with better understanding of what they should do.

When more than one punctuation mark (not including quotation marks, parentheses or brackets) could be used at the same place in a sentence, use only the "stronger"--or more necessary--of the two. Question marks and exclamation points, for example, are stronger than commas and periods: "Have all the ballots finally been counted?" asked the reporter. (The question mark fills the role of the comma.) The topic of his speech is "We demand justice now!" (No period following the exclamation point.)

See entries for specific punctuation marks:

Also see asterisk (*), headlines, pound sign (#), sentence length.

puns To quote the New York Times Manual of Style and Usage: "A pun should be a surprise encounter, evoking a sly smile rather than a groan and flattering the intelligence of a reader who gets the joke. ... The successful pun pivots on a word that fits effortlessly into two elements ..."

purchase To purchase is to make a bad buy. You’re using two syllables and six letters for purchase but getting no more meaning than you get with buy. Simplify. Use the verb buy instead.

purposely, purposefully Often confused. Use purposely to mean "on purpose, intentionally or deliberately": She stopped the equipment purposely (or intentionally or on purpose). Use purposefully when you have a specific purpose in mind, or have a clear idea for getting a specific result: She ran the equipment purposefully, like she planned to meet her quota by lunchtime.

pursuant to Pompous. Unless you’re pretending to be a corporate lawyer, simplify and use according to, by or under instead.

push-button (n., adj.)

push up (v.), pushup (n., adj.)

pyramid See inverted pyramid.

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Updated May 5, 2024.